Memories of the future: Literature as a source of the possible

:speech_balloon: Speaker: Velna Rončević @Velna

:classical_building: Affiliation: Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences University of Zagreb

Title: Memories of the future: Literature as a source of the possible

Abstract (long version below): Our comprehension about the future and orientation towards the future is constantly being mediated and changed by knowledge. Literature has the potential to be such knowledge and can serve as a driver of imagination and anticipation about the future, but also considerations of the past and present. Reflecting on five hundred interviews with non-professional readers, this paper addresses the role of future orientations in readers’ encounters with literature. We explore how literature mediates imaginations of the future and what affects and emotions come up in relation to it.


:newspaper: Long abstract

The future is an unknowable fact. It is a temporality limited by knowledge (Bryant and Knight 2019) and, as Adams et al. (2009) phrase it, it is only knowable in persistently changing ways. Following previous calls for the consideration of future (Munn 1992), the field of anthropology today is rich in various inspections of this aspect of temporality.

This research is part of a wider study inquiring in how non-professional readers remember literature in Croatian everyday life. Reflecting on five hundred semi-structured interviews with Croatian non-professional readers, this paper addresses the role of future orientations in readers’ encounters with literature. We explore how literature mediates imaginations of the future and what affects and emotions come up in relation to it. We ask, what do the readers think about when they talk about spatiotemporal and other aspects of the future?

As a field of anthropological study, the main question pertains to methodology – how do we study a concept that is certain, yet does not exist? Bryant and Knight (2019) propose to study the relationship between future and action including the act of imagining the future”. They introduce the concept of futural dynamism as a way of thinking that, starting from the future, contemplates the multi-temporality of the present and the past. We see this in the conversations with Croatian readers; a question about the future sometimes elicits responses reflecting on the past – personal or historical, a kind of temporal excursion inspired by the experience of reading. Temporal dynamism also points to the capacity of objects and beings to bring possible futures into the present, similar to the dimension of anticipation that Adams et al. term abduction – taking back and forth from the future, present and past (2009). Literature is one such possible object, or rather, its texts have the potential to become such an object.

Insight into readers’ considerations about the future – their memories of those thoughts will also be examined in relationship to imagination and anticipation. Imagination is viewed as energy, a form of work that becomes part of the life story of individuals and groups (Appadurai 1996, 2013). As such, it is not an escape from daily life, but its integral dimension (Ang 1985). Orienting individuals toward the future, anticipation is the “palpable effect” of the future on the present (Adams et al. 2019), it flows through daily life and has an active part in structuring it (Stephan and Flaherty 2019). For readers, literature serves as a driver of imagination and anticipation about the future.

One of the questions posed in the semi-structured interviews is: “Has reading ever made you think about the future?” While some readers negate any futural orientation in their engagements with literature, others express an orientation toward other temporalities – the present or the past. This paper will present the findings based on the answers of those readers who state considerations about the future – whether personal or communal. However, we also take into consideration futural orientations expressed in other parts of the interview.

Although there are many overlaps in topics and concerns about the future, we distinguish five tentative categories that show different meanings literature has in readers’ lives (Tangerås 2020). The first category is distinguished by the transformative potential of orienting themselves through literature, reflections in which readers express personal development or growth encouraged by certain works. The second concerns those who experience reading literature as an opportunity to learn – understanding social relations, broadening world views, life lessons and other knowledge that reorients the reader. We follow Jameljan Hakemulder’s (2000) observations on the influence of narratives on self-concepts, that is, literature’s potential to produce new understandings of oneself and affect real life choices. Third, the topic of future brings up various political and socio-cultural issues such as war, women’s rights, bioethics etc.: statements that show us how attention to the future reveal insecurities experienced in the present, but also inspires ruminations of the past. The fourth are those readers who more explicitly state literature as source for imagining the future, whether that concerns certain texts or literature in general. As cultural anthropologist Arjun Appadurai (2013) observes, the future is not technical or neutral, but “shot through with affect and with sensation”. Of course, all the readers’ experiences and memories are shaped by affect – it shapes our perceptions of the future, while the imagined and anticipated future shapes our affective states, but our fifth group states different emotions when thinking about the future – mainly anxiety and fear, but also love or hope. The sixth, but not definite, is a group of responses that specifically refer to old age and death, statements that reveal a certain realism and matter-of-factness.

Our paper will thus show literary readers’ first-person experiences of the future, but it will also outline a collective image of orientation to future itself.

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